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article imageOp-Ed: Detroit's water shutoffs — The crisis overlooked by the media

By Karen Graham     Jul 22, 2014 in Politics
Detroit - When Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a bankruptcy lawyer as Detroit's manager in 2013, the "motor-city" was seemingly at the end of its rope. Bogged down in high-crime, high unemployment and a distrustful citizenry, what was going to happen next?
While the world was glued to televisions, computer screens and Smartphones, keeping up with the unfolding disaster taking place in Ukraine on Friday, another crisis was unfolding, right here in the United States. On Friday in downtown Detroit, thousands of local residents, including many people from around the country joined in staging a massive protest outside the Cobo Center over shut-offs by the city's water department.
National Nurses United (NNU) led the protest stating it is their contention that the water shut-offs pose a public health threat, a charge dismissed by Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager overseeing Detroit's unprecedented bankruptcy, who described the shut-offs as “a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring" as it works to reduce the $18 billion in debts listed in the city's bankruptcy filing last year.
Before the march on Cobo Center, another march took place on the Hormich facilities, where protesters physically blocked the entrance in order to prevent the company's trucks from going out to shut off residents water supplies. Police at that site arrested nine protesters, including wheelchair-bound Baxter Jones. The city has responded to the protests, saying on Monday they would give customers with overdue bills 15 days to make arrangements to pay up.
The question on many people's minds, particularly the residents of Detroit is why has the media, and for that matter, the country has not expressed their outrage over what is happening in their city? Detroit's Uptown magazine points out the media frenzy going on the past four days focuses on foreign affairs issues that most Americans really don't seem that interested in hearing about, yet other than MSNBC's occasional mention of the crisis, there has been nothing reported by any of the major news sites.
How severe is the crisis in Detroit? A few facts need to be laid out to fully understand the crisis. We all know about the city filing for bankruptcy, and we are aware of the governor appointing a manager to see Detroit through the legal system as it works to reduce its debts. But there is so much more to the story.
There is the political wrangling, with the governor and his appointed city manager looking to sell off all the city's major assets to the wolves waiting on the sidelines, or in the words of Uptown magazine, "wealthy buyers looking for a cheap buy." But while this is a huge problem financially, it will create filter-down issues for the majority of the residents still living in the inner-city itself.
Therein lies the biggest problem, racial inequality, a 40+ percent unemployment rate, and poverty. Take your pick of the three, and you will find the other two are directly tied in to the whole. The city is telling people that anyone owing $150 or more on their water bill, or is two months overdue will face shut-offs by a private contractor hired by the city for $6.0 million. Horlich, a demolition company, was hired to do the cut-offs.
The water department stepped up its attempts in March to collect $90 million in past due water bills owed by residents, businesses and other customers. It is reported that through June, more than $43 million was owed on over 80,000 city residential accounts. According to the figures, this means that over half the money owed is businesses and others. The city is saying that the average past-due residential account amounts to approximately $535.
Adding insult to injury, last month the city council approved an increase in water bills amounting to 8.7 percent, a move that would increase water usage prices for a family of four to twice the national average. Opponents of the increase claim the city is trying to clean up the books in a move to go with privatization which would push water bills and other utilities even higher.
There is anger, a lot of anger that the city is targeting households first, instead of the over 21,000 businesses, schools and other non-residential properties with delinquent water bills. The city had an answer to this complaint, saying it was “more complicated” to cut off supplies to businesses because more crews would have to be hired and trained. Bill Johnson, a spokesman for Detroit's water and sewerage department said, “People are making things worse for themselves. The penalties may be more than the actual bill." Johnson explained:
“These are not people who can’t afford to pay. They just don’t want to pay. These are people who are scamming, who want to scam the system.” He went on: “People pay their cable bill, their cell phone bill, all these other bills, and the water bill is the last one they will pay. Why? Because we have never had until this year an aggressive cut-off campaign”.
With all the give-and-take and name calling, it still comes down to a basic fact. In March of 2014, the city announced it would start cutting off water service to 1,500 to 3,000 customers a week. Keep in mind there are over water 179,000 accounts in Detroit. In April, 83,000 of those accounts were overdue. At that time, city spokesperson Greg Eno confirmed the city would start ramping up shutoffs starting June 2, at about 3,000 a week. Today, over 30,000 people have no access to water.
These people are Americans most of them black, people without jobs, the elderly and sick, those with small children. How is it that this crisis, a crisis that the United Nations, no less, addressed last month, has not been reported on by the American media? The U.N. had this to say about the crisis, when an expert panel led by Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN's special rapporteur on safe drinking water and sanitation, said cutting off water to people who cannot afford to pay “constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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